Getting accurate information on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is difficult, since today’s communist state lives up to ancient Korea’s nickname of the “Hermit Kingdom.” Before World War II missionaries were active throughout the peninsula, then a Japanese colony, and more than a fifth of the population was believed to be Christian in 1948. Between 300,000 and 500,000 Christians are thought to remain in North Korea today. Refugees from the North report religious involvement ranging from 1.2 percent participating in to 5.1 percent witnessing secret religious activities.
The DPRK ostentatiously treats anyone of faith, but especially Christians, as hostile. Believers place loyalty to God before that of the North Korean state. Churches allow people to act and organize outside of state entities. Christianity also has ties to a world seen as almost uniformly threatening by Pyongyang.
Open Doors recently rated the DPRK number one for the 14th year in a row on the group’s “World Watch List.” Explained Open Doors: “Christianity is not only seen as ‘opium of the people’ as is normal for all communist states; it is also seen as deeply Western and despicable. Christians try to hide their faith as far as possible to avoid arrest and being sent to a labor camp. Thus, being Christian has to be a well‐protected secret, even within families, and most parents refrain from introducing their children to the Christian faith in order to make sure that nothing slips their tongue when they are asked.”
In 2014 the group Aid to the Church in Need published a persecution report which figured that some 50,000 Christians may currently be in the DPRK’s penal camps. The organization warned that the Kim Jong‐un regime appeared to be tightening controls over potential dissent, including a vigorous crackdown on Christians. Aid reported that “Since 1953, at least 200,000 Christians have gone missing. If caught by the regime, unauthorized Christians face arrest torture or in some cases public execution.”
Even the United Nations, which has a decidedly mixed record on human rights, confronted the DPRK two years ago. A special Commission of Inquiry pointed to the “almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” Believers “are prohibited from practicing their religion” and punished severely if disobedient. The ruling regime “considers the spread of Christianity a particularly severe threat.”
A new report from Christian Solidarity Worldwide offers a detailed look at religious persecution in the North. Entitled “Total Denial: Violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief in North Korea,” the study paints a tragic picture. Persecution has been official state policy since the DPRK’s creation and believers “suffer significantly because of the anti‐revolutionary and imperialist labels attached to them by the country’s leadership.”
All people of faith are categorized as “hostile” (the other two broad classes or songbun groups are “core” and “wavering”). It is notably better to be Shaman than Christian, and slightly worse to be Catholic than Protestant. CSW identifies six different periods of North Korean policy toward religion.